It’s dark out when Brittney Elaban drives her van up to Grewal Liquors on McLaughlin Avenue. Her husband, Richard Lopez, sits in the passenger seat. The fluorescent glow from the storefront offers just enough light for him to recognize the face of the man in the parked red sedan—Martin Perez, who’s with his boys “Oso” and “Lips,” at least two of them Sureños.
“Oh shit,” Lopez hisses, locking eyes with Perez. Elaban pulls up alongside the car and kills the engine. Lopez disembarks, exchanges a quick handshake with an acquaintance, who happens to be out front—a quick distraction. Then, he dives through the rolled-down window of the red car, thrashing Perez with a closed fist and a knife.
The brawl spills onto the parking lot and Perez scrambles out his passenger side. The blade has already punctured his chest and the back of his head. Lopez stabs him twice more in the stomach before he can run away. Elaban starts the van again. “Vamanos!” she barks, reversing the vehicle with the passenger door still open. Lopez rushes back in the van and the two drive off.
Elaban’s decision to wait out the fight and help her husband get away that night in May 2011 made her a co-defendant in her husband’s attempted murder case. She pleaded guilty as an accessory after the fact—prosecutors tried to argue that the stabbing was pre-meditated in those seconds between recognizing the victim’s face and parking the van.
Both husband and wife received gang enhancements. Lopez claimed the attack was to protect his family. But the scuffle took place on Norteño turf, which, investigators said, Lopez was expected to violently defend. Detectives found the apartment where Elaban and Lopez lived—with their four children—cluttered with gang paraphernalia. Though she wasn’t a validated gang member, Elaban “showed a unique commitment to the gang” by helping her husband get away, an investigator testified in the case.
“Women play an essential role in gangs,” Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Anne Seery says, pointing to Elaban’s case as an example. “We see more females in the associate role. They help the men by being the getaway driver, by carrying the weapons, by hiding the drugs, by taking three-way calls from jail, they provide the alibis, they sneak kites (messages). Gangs have relied on women more because they always thought that we wouldn’t prosecute the women.”
That has changed. Women, and girls under 18, are increasingly getting caught up on gang charges and violent crimes—and a lack of gender-specific intervention means local authorities have only recently started catching up to the trend. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the female inmate population grew by 11 percent between 2010 and 2013, while the male population behind bars dipped 4.2 percent. Female delinquency has risen about 2 percent a year since 1985—twice the rate for men. In the South Bay, gang involvement by underage girls has risen from 3 percent to 15 percent of the population in the past decade, according to county Juvenile Probation.
Historically, women have always been involved in gangs. They’re the wives, mothers, girlfriends and often the parents who raise children while the father serves time. Sometimes they form their own all-female gangs. Though authorities have documented only five all-girl gangs in the South Bay, according to Seery.
“Gang violence is an equal opportunity life destroyer,” says Angel Rios, associate director of San Jose’s Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services and a member of the Mayor’s Gang Prevention Task Force. “But we do see more female violence now, which forced us to say, ‘OK, how are we going to address this?’”
As part of the current-year budget approved in June, the San Jose City Council agreed to spend $267,000 to hire three female outreach workers to deal with girls involved in gangs. Rios is in the process of hiring three people for the job. Part of their task will be to collect data on female gang involvement so the city has more than cursory statistics and anecdotal evidence.
“Already 49 percent of the people in our [gang] task force programs are women,” Rios says. “But we lack female-specific programming. As you look deeper, you see that we need to handle this more effectively.”
Victims of trauma, especially, tend to require a gender-specific approach. Rios says the program will necessarily include counseling about dating violence and sexual abuse. It’s painfully common to hear girls describe forced sex as part of their relationships, without even knowing that what they experienced was rape, he says.
“When you’re dealing with girls, you have to work through trauma,” agrees Razelle Buenavista, a director of outpatient services for Asian American Recovery Services, whose team counsels teen gang members. In fact, 80 percent of incarcerated youth have experienced trauma, according to the National Mental Health Association. Seventy percent of girls in the criminal justice system report being sexually victimized. Even if girls aren’t always jumped into a gang, they are often sexually assaulted, prey to domestic abuse, contract STDs and carry unwanted pregnancies. “They learn to distrust a lot of people from a very young age,” Buenavista says.
Angelina Macias runs her thumb over four dots—shorthand for the 14th letter of the alphabet, N, for Norteño—tattooed on her left wrist. She contemplates covering it up. People have killed over those four dots. “But I don’t know,” she says, dressed in the crisp white button-down shirt, the uniform for her server’s job. “It kind of reminds me where I come from. I don’t agree with the lifestyle now, but I can’t deny that it was a part of my life.”
To forget that part, she’ll wear a scrunchy or a watch to cover it up. She’s 34 now, a mother of five, two decades after getting jumped in, a brutal initiation in some guy’s backyard.
“I try to use my life as an example of how to overcome this,” says Macias, who counsels other women trying to move on with their lives. “But it does pull you in—these kids without supervision, whose parents are working all the time or in prison. For me, being in a gang was just, like, those were my friends, those were the ones who snuck off with me to the gynecologist because I was afraid of what my mom was going to say. They’d wipe my tears if a guy broke my heart. They walked me home. They made sure I was taken care of. I don’t condone it, but that’s how it draw you in.”
Rios calls it the honeymoon phase—like an abusive spouse, fond memories can bring a person back, despite the heartbreak. “There’s always a quid pro quo, which is unspoken at first,” says Rios, who grew up on San Jose’s East Side awatched friends and family get lose their way to one gang or another. nd “After the honeymoon, it’s time to do some work. [They say], ‘I need you to carry these drugs. Drive me away. Come up with an alibi.’ Then, you’re in the system and it becomes this downward spiral.”
For Macias, the honeymoon ended while trying to raise her first son alone at 15. The father got locked up on a drug charge, leaving her to scramble for a job. “I wanted something better for my family,” she says. Rios, who met Macias when she was sent to a drug treatment program as a teen, considers her living proof of the transformative influence of women. “That’s another reason we want to reach them,” he says. “When women change, they change their families, too. They can set the standard.”